Madison, Wisconsin is home to the newly-founded Madison Circus Space (MCS). I stopped in for a visit to learn about its origins, how it is managed, and how it differs from other institutions. Throughout the course of two days I talked to the board members and met various participants of the space to discuss its appeal and function to the community.
The MCS is a completely volunteer-run organization with a 4600-square-foot facility. It offers individual and family memberships at very affordable rates, as low as $50/month for unlimited access, and is home to numerous clubs, such as the Madison Area Jugglers, Hoop Dance, Aerial Club, one of the largest German Wheel Clubs in the country, and even a Table Tennis Club. One of the many awesome attributes to this space is that it is open 24/7, making it possible for performers with odd hours and travel plans to make time for training around their schedules. I was lucky enough to attend a 6:30 a.m. conditioning group on a Monday morning and a midday aerial yoga class. On a rainy afternoon, a herd of 5-year-old boys accompanied by their adult counterparts came to roll around on tumbling mats and try a hand at various community circus toys such as rolla bollas, hula hoops and exercise balls. Not only are locals taking advantage, but visitors from out of town or touring performers can get a day pass.
All members have a key fob which allows 24 hour access to the warehouse. There is not 24 hour personnel on site, but there are strict regulations about what you can do in the space unattended or with a group. Aerialists must be accompanied by another member to set up rigging or train on an apparatus. Aerial work and German Wheel practitioners are amongst the highest concern and require a review of their past experience, two or more references and an approval meeting overseen by a qualified board member in the field. It is refreshing to see that safety is of utmost concern to the MCS organizers. All members must abide by the member agreement, and a safety policy and a waiver is signed by anyone that uses the facility.
The member agreement states, “you are responsible for your own safety.” While the facility is responsible for the rigging points, everything from the clip down is the member’s responsibility. Some of the following is stated in the membership guidelines and safety policy: new equipment requires some formal training, mats are used underneath equipment, use spotters when necessary, it is best to move the ladder with a partner, personal drama must be left at the door and if you see other members not abiding by the safety procedures you should approach them about your concern or contact an aerial coordinator. The safety policy and member agreement are specific and direct about all the procedures that must be followed or immediate termination as a member could ensue.
There are obvious obstacles in creating a facility that fits the needs of such a diverse community. Big, open spaces, tall ceilings, safe rigging practices, specialty flooring, and a climate-controlled facility that is centrally located are all details that cannot be overlooked. But most important of all is committed management. During my pursuit of knowledge on the “how” and “why” these types of spaces are emerging and sticking around, I have found that a group of responsible, passionate, and organized members will ultimately define its successes.
The board members of the MCS could not be more committed. German Wheel performer and writer Carly Schuna describes the team of members as “a group of friends with a common vision.” I can verify their enthusiasm for this grand project (which has been privately funded, along with a Kickstarter campaign to get a sprung wood floor and a fundraiser named the Mad Circus Gala). As most artists, musicians, and performing arts groups know, crowdsourcing and fundraising can be a challenge. As Secretary of MCS, Schuna put together the Kickstarter page and sent out personalized emails for donations over the 30 day campaign period. Schuna’s suggestion: “I wouldn’t recommend running a Kickstarter routine unless you have a lot of guaranteed, built-in supporters, you have a lot of time on your hands, or both.” The time and dedication paid off and MCS raised above their goal, finishing the campaign at $13,845.00. Their campaign is no longer running but you can visit their page on Kickstarter.org to see their video and hear about the project from the board members themselves.
Table Tennis Club organizer and board member Tom Running said that “a spirit of cooperation” has made this space possible, and that the clubs feel more united and are progressing due to “a sense of ownership” that has been created with the opening of the MCS. Goals for the future may include expansion (they are filling up during peak hours), an air conditioning unit, and mirrors for portions of the walls. They have a complete wishlist on their website. By the time this article is published MCS will be weeks away from attaining a non-profit status. Schuna states that working with a speciality non-profit lawyer is a must to help move the process along.
With the diversity of members and clubs, the MCS has created a lovely “cross pollination,” as termed by Gini Knight, aerialist and board member of MCS. When members cross paths with each other, it is like stumbling upon sweet inspiration! Having a common place for Madison circus artists to encourage creativity in one another is likely to be a gold mine of connections and collaborations, creating versatility amongst performers.
The whole point of my trip was to familiarize myself with the the MCS business model. In doing so I can see how important teamwork, delegation and trust in others lead to such an open, welcoming facility, that fosters both creative energy and safe procedures. There are a vast number of ways that a circus space can come into creation and grow, but I think the MCS got it right due to the diligence of its board members, participating clubs and individuals that make the space more than just a big, empty warehouse. When asked about how they keep the morale up for all the board members and volunteers who have put countless hours, physical labor and emotional investment into this space, the answer was quite simple: love for the circus space keeps everyone high on life. Circus has always been a visual and tangible experience for fans and performers, and the same rings true for the benefits reaped from the MCS. Staying true to their mission, they’ve created a space where “the celebration of the circus arts” is being fulfilled 24/7.
Robin Rosenberger is the Calendar and Jobs Board Coordinator for Circus Now and resides in Kansas City, MO where she is owner, ringmaster and aerialist for MoonDrop Circus. Although circus life keeps her busy she is an active member of the Kansas City Juggling Club and enjoys non circus hobbies such as knitting, camping, and listening to her sweetheart’s mandolin by firelight.